Why do men climb mountains?Before attempting to answer this age-old question, it must be modified to reflect the reality of a broader spectrum of people now scaling the world’s tallest peaks in this modern era. “Men” is no longer accurately inclusive. The new version should be:Why do men, women, geezers, wheezers, teenagers, blind people, amputees, paraplegics, paragliders, soloists, nudists, jack-Buddhists, bankers, jugglers, hackers, cell phone yakkers, Chinese broadcasters, reality TV contestants, debutantes, skiers, snowboarders, and even a few sane people, climb mountains?The pat answer has always been “because they are there.” Many people believe that this answer came about because the true reasons for mountain climbing are so esoteric, so spiritual, so evocative and personal that words alone could never convey the calling necessary to seek meaning about life from on high.In truth, this question cannot be answered for mountains seldom climbed. There is simply not enough data to examine. To answer the question we need to focus on the only mountain that seems to get any traffic these days. Let’s narrow the scope of this discussion to Mount Everest and the circus that arrives there every spring.Now that so many people have climbed to the top of the world (more than 500 this year alone), the sole reason this odd assortment of humanity with above-average time-management skills (it takes up to 10 weeks to scale Everest) risks life and limb to scale a mountain that presents no real technical challenges, other than making sure you don’t lock your knees out while waiting in line for your turn to go up, is manifest:People climb Everest in order to have a good story to tell.It’s as simple as that. Coming home from a faraway, frozen place and talking about body counts and frostbitten appendages is a real attention-getter. I remember from my own mountaineering experiences, the best parts were the days just before leaving on an expedition and those glorious few immediately after returning. Audibly contemplating death, oxygen depravation, fierce storms and frigid depravity at opportune moments garnered all kinds of notice in the hours leading up to departure. But that was nothing compared to counting the number of dead and wounded strangers left behind on the mountain upon a safe return home. There was no limit to keeping an audience captivated over stories of carnage and daring.All that is still the same, except scaling the highest peak in the world is not what it once was. People have been there and done that more than 3,000 times. The general public isn’t interested anymore. This has created an incredible shortage of noteworthy goings-on in the Himalayas, and that is a huge problem because nobody wants to spend a $100,000 on an expedition and come home with nothing to talk about or, worse yet, suffer the ignominy of listening to someone else who does!You want proof that Everest climbing is all about the blah, blah, blah? Observe the telling of an even slightly interesting Everest tale these days, and watch the pathetic jealousy surface from other climbers who didn’t think of successful ways to promote their own expensive, uncomfortable, two-month-long vacations to the mountains, or whose own legends have grown moldy. The Mount Everest climbing community is one of the meanest, pettiest groups of nit- and ice-pickers known.If you make it to the top, fellow participants will criticize you for using oxygen, taking an easy route, for using a guide, a Sherpa, a compass, for drinking water, whatever – the list is endless. And, that’s if you make it to the summit! If you come up short, you are a complete failure even if you attempted a difficult route walking on your hands. Do you see? Participants have made it so that there is no way to win on Everest!Climbing Everest is an activity without regulations, standard objectives or common stated purpose. Great! You would think that this would create an atmosphere that is free of status-quo constraints that define traditional sports – you know, something conducive to a friendly, outdoorsy, noncompetitive, granola-munching love festival. Baloney! Instead, it is an activity with so little camaraderie that participants have resorted to defining their own success by fellow participants’ failures. Tear someone else’s story apart to make yours better. If everybody else is a loser, you must be a winner. What fun!Of course, the ultimate failure is death because all survivors are unarguably successful by comparison. Check out articles, blogs, films and books about Everest: “Six climbers died in the first five days we were there!” “For every five people that summit, one person dies!” … It’s nonstop death!What is completely ironic is that if you come down in one thawed piece, you are scoffed at, whereas, if you get killed on the mountain and leave a family of 18 behind (better if you didn’t make the summit first) you will become the stuff of expedition lore. It seems that the only way to avoid scrutiny is to come home in a plastic bag, or become a layer in the glacier. Worst of all is the phoniness and pretension that surrounds this tall-tale charade. The same mountaineers who smugly proclaim themselves free of the glad-handing and gossip of business-world cocktail parties and PTA meetings, congratulate one another, face-to-smiling-face and then behind one another’s backs talk more crap than the Wagner Park pooper scoopers.At one time, Everest was the ultimate prize in mountaineering. Many doubted that human life could survive its heights. The competition was fierce to find out if it could be conquered. This is no longer the case. There are few, truly interesting stories left there.I am not criticizing anyone for what they have done on Mount Everest. I am blasting them for how they behave once they get back home. From a perch on top of the world, it seems more than a few Mount Everest climbers have completely lost perspective.If they’d give one another credit, at least everybody would get a little bit. As it is, by continuously conniving to rip it away from one another, nobody gets any. The rest of the world has moved beyond caring too much.Roger Marolt gets his ropes knotted up every Friday in The Aspen Times. Send him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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